Helpful Advice for Starting Out on The Twitter Dot Com

bau pals
Reading Your Tweets Like…

I suspect that much of PALS’s new growth on Twitter (aka #OnHere) in the past year comes via follows by new accounts. I don’t have hard data to support my observation, but I suspect PALS shows up more as a suggested follow, especially for new folks. Regardless, our growth reflects how Twitter’s algorithm works coupled with the way content moves #OnHere.

We have a small Twitter following compared to other academic blogs. We don’t have the large audience appeal working in the favor of many other collaborative academic blogs with a social media presence. The practical part of teaching American literature is neat, but niche. In the big picture, we’re small on Twitter. Our small size, regardless of our content, also reflects how Twitter works.

PALS has been #OnHere since August of 2015. It took a long time to grow our following. It took a long time to figure out how running an account for a blog/entity/thing versus a personal account differed. Many of us behind the PALS scenes have been #OnHere well before 2015. Still, we’re learning and figuring things out when it comes to tending to PALS and providing the content that #PalsNation wants.

I thought it might be useful to share a little bit of Twitter advice, especially since we have many new followers, including many graduate students. Graduate students are frequently told to get on Twitter or other forms of social media…

a mentoring.jpgHowever… Let’s be honest: in many cases graduate students are told to get on Twitter by 2 types of people: 1) Folks that aren’t on the Twitter Dot Com or 2) folks that are not good at the Twitter Dot Com. We are on the Twitter Dot Com. We’re decent at it. We’d like to share a few pieces of advice. Before we get into technical advice for starting up with Twitter, we’ll begin with philosophical advice.

A lot of Twitter advice focuses on being your own person on Twitter; it’s a recommendation steeped in a lot of privilege. You’ll find the “be yourself” advice in a myriad of advice columns; you’ll find such advice below. However, recognize that such advice often comes from experiences centered within positions of great privilege. It is important to take any advice with a grain of salt.

Nazi GTFO.GIF
BJ Blazkowicz gets it; Jack not so much.

Twitter has problems. There are rat bastards, trolls, and Nazis out there. There are people out there that will throw folks under the bus. Twitter can exacerbate systemic inequalities and can hang people out to dry. Twitter, the company, does little to stop this. All of the above doesn’t even account for the systemic inequalities within academia. Unfortunately, the work of supporting individuals attacked by sustained trolling campaigns falls on a larger community. You don’t have to engage with people. Mute and block are your friends.

Twitter is a weird platform and much of it has nothing to do with you. So, be cool with understanding that the workings of Twitter (platform and company) are weird (and often just bad). It doesn’t have all that much to do with you or the people you follow. We try to use Twitter to have a little bit of fun with PALS. We smash the retweet button. We post memes and gifs. We have a decent amount of engagement. However, Twitter isn’t what drives traffic to our site. On the flipside, Twitter is huge for making connections with folks interested in pitching a guest post. It has taken a while for us to get used to this facet of Twitter. For instance the recent meme-ification of PALS really didn’t happen until the coming of #WaltGrittman.

gritt loafe.jpg

Don’t worry about running with big accounts or big people. Be your own dog. Find fellow travelers in terms of personality and your personal and professional interests. For example, it has taken me a great deal of time to find a handful of folks that appreciate my humor. Find folks that share the same personal and research interests. Pay attention to your research interests, but if you like museums or zoos or whatever, then follow accounts related to those interests, too. You will find fellow travelers. It can take time. Finding new folks is a cool thing about Twitter. Finding your Twitter voice is a process. Again, be your own dog as best as you can. It’s hard not to worry about being yourself when there is so much self-fashioning and promotion on Twitter. There is a lot of self-fashioning in academia. Twitter turns self-fashioning up to 11.

Try to be kind. Don’t be a bad person. The thing about assholes on Twitter is that we tell them to be kind and nice, but they don’t listen. Don’t placate abusive or condescending people. It’s actually harder than it sounds because Twitter rewards bad behaviors with likes and retweets. Twitter often foments a feed frenzy. Twitter seems big, but it can be a small world, especially in how it functions like a little public square in the world of academic fields and subfields and subfields of subfields.

meerkat shit list
Not a lie.

Try to interact with other people, which is a hard thing to do for many of us. Wade into the discussions about your research interests. Get fizzy with the recurring debates about soda. Remember, Twitter is just weird. You don’t need to be on all the time, which is a hard thing to remember. Try to reply to people. Interact with them. Actually respond directly; don’t overuse the quote-tweet function. It takes a long time to figure out how to get a read on how some conversations work. Some conversations are a free-for-all. Some conversations are A-B conversations in public, so C your way out.

Some content resonates. Some tweets are duds. A lot of times the profound sinks to the bottom, but the mundane rises to the top. Just do you. It took me nearly 10 years to have a moderately viral tweet. I can’t explain it.

Twitter affords an opportunity to retool one’s scholarly interests outside of how the traditional academic world works. Running in certain circles means that I’ve been able to refocus my scholarly interests. Many of us at PALS have used Twitter to become early Americanists, for example.

Below you’ll find advice folks starting out with a new Twitter account. Again, keep in mind your own personal situation and account for your own internet safety.

  1. Use your own name, if you can, in the Twitter handle and in the name field for your account.
  2. Don’t be an egg. Make sure to include some kind of profile picture. Use a headshot, a picture of your research, an animal. Just don’t go with the default.
  3. Come up with a pithy bio for your account. Identify your affiliations and your research interests. It took me a long time to come up with a pithy bio. It took me writing a fellowship application to come up with my bio.
  4. Don’t go following crazy right away, especially with Twitter’s suggested follows that appear when creating a new account. Start building your Twitter network with people you know in real-life. By starting with people you know, you’ll build a network that will function as a way validating your account as one that is genuine.
  5. Tweet and reply to people in your initial network. You’re building up a sample set of tweets that demonstrate who you are as an individual #OnHere. Aim to build a record of consistent tweeting, maybe of 30 to 50 tweets.
  6. Start building the second level of your network. Start with your subfield; don’t jump right into the larger discipline. You’ll likely find it more rewarding to build a network of folks related to your subfield. Start by following academic blogs, professional organizations, & libraries/archives in your subfield. Then, check out their followers for further suggestions. You can build this network over time; no need to do it all at once. This manner of finding accounts is a much more fruitful approach than relying on Twitter’s suggestions.

Again, remember just to do you. It is okay to lurk and watch conversations unfold. Adapt anyone’s advice for your own circumstances. Welcome to the Twitter Dot Com. Hopefully this advice helps you with entering the fruitful and maddening world of Twitter.

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This is not a Desk Copy

My Undergraduate Experience: A Memory Experiment
From time to time I do a memory experiment. I close my eyes, run through my memories, and try to envision every course I took as an undergrad. At first, I wanted to know if I could remember my instructors. I’ve forgotten many of their names, but I wondered if I could, at the least, remember their faces. However, as I did this experiment I began to recall other details about my classroom experiences and the demeanor of many of my professors.

I began to recall my professors’ arrival to class. How they carried themselves. What they wore. The items they brought with them to class. Common elements emerged. My professors brought pens, and maybe a marker or chalk. They brought record books or a class-dedicated folder. They brought a book, if needed, too. Some of them brought coffee. Not in throwaway cups or travel mugs, but in real coffee mugs. Common threads emerged about the objects I didn’t see. Winter jackets were absent from my memories. Briefcases, totes, and other bags were not in my memories.

I furthered my memory experiment by accounting for my professors’ shared similarities. A major feature stood out to me. All of my instructors taught classes in the same building as their office. I had English classes in buildings housing English departments. Historic preservation classes were held in the home building of the historic preservation department. History classes happened in the same building as the history department. I traced my memories to follow this pattern. In short, my professors taught classes in the same building as their home departments.

I reached further back into my memories, searching for systemic and structural explanations. I found a few. I began my undergraduate career at a small public liberal arts college in Virginia. I finished my undergraduate degree at a small private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Both of these schools, regardless of being public or private, fit the stereotypes of a liberal arts college. These were bucolic campuses where, for the most part, academic departments had their own offices and classrooms in their own buildings.

My college professors were tenure-track or tenured faculty. I never took a class from an adjunct. I never had a graduate student as an instructor. The very nature of who my college instructors were (and where they taught) explains much about how their classroom demeanor operated. They had offices in buildings that housed their classrooms. They were people that could carry a mug of coffee down a flight of stairs or past a few doors down a hallway to a classroom. They didn’t carry their entire professional life around like an academic pack mule. They didn’t need bags just to travel from one building to the next.

It’s in the Bag

Coach
Put me in, Coach

Today, as an instructor, bags tell the story of my semester’s progression. My blue lunch bag is a constant well into the semester, at least, until I’m too exhausted at semester’s close to plan my lunch in advance. My decrepit, black gym bag, stuffed with everything I need for the gym, towels, and a change of clothing is another mainstay; hopefully, for most of the semester. I begin the semester using a black leather Coach messenger-style bag. The Coach bag originally belonged to my (now retired) mom. (She originally suggested I start using the bag at academic conferences; the suggestion says a lot about academic conferences…) The bag projects authority, style, and sophistication at the start of the semester. I pack this bag with one or two pens and the books I need. The Coach bag, as it starts to strain with handouts, student papers, research, and other items, is the first bag to go as the semester moves forward.

Less than 3 NYC
I less than 3 NYC

As the semester grinds on I cull the things I’ve accumulated in my bag. I transition to a light-weight “I Love NY” tote bag. The bag was a gift from my sister. Similar bags are a mainstay of her everyday life in New York City. This bag-transition is fleeting, generally in-between the brief period of the first and second major assignments. I accumulate more items: papers to grade, papers that aren’t handed back, books, handouts and more. The bag that handles the demands of city life inevitable falters under the weight of the semester. Next, I transition to a large reusable shopping bag from Wegmans. Apparently I’ve become known for this purple Wegmans bag. My returning students have asked about it. Clearly, my keen fashion sense at the semester’s start doesn’t matter. I suspect some students connect to this bag because it reminds them of home. Regardless, this is my mainstay bag for the semester’s close. My purple Wegmans bag eventually groans under the weight of everything I carry. I try to organize things as best as I can. Drafts, final submissions, and handouts are organized into plastic grocery bags; then they go in the Wegmans bag.

Wegmans
Wegmans!

The Books I Carry
The books used for teaching are the mainstay items in all of my bags. In and out of the bags they go. Eight to twelve times a week (at the least) the books go in and out of my bags, depending on my teaching schedule. There are the countless times I remove books for my own reading, class prep, or frantic searches for something I’ve misplaced. It is no wonder the books start getting beaten down physically just by going in and out of bags. Corners dinged. Corners bent. Corners peeling. Stains. The physical destruction of my books is disconcerting for someone that takes care of their books. I take pride in reading a book and finishing it in mint condition. The semester is cruel to my books.

Desk Copies
I requested desk copies for nearly every book I’m teaching this fall. I already owned many of the books I requested. My assigned course readings overlap with my personal library. Several of the books I assigned are books purchased and read a lifetime ago. They’re part of a personal identity, very separate from my identity and role as a literature professor. I bought them at some point. I read them. They weren’t for classes; they were for me. These distinctions say a lot about how I want to keep my identity as a person and an employee separate. I made a decision in the spring when planning my classes: My past self wasn’t going to subsidize the books I’m teaching today.

Mail 2
Desk Copies

Professors talk about desk copies a lot. Often there is a significant amount of virtue-signaling that occurs regarding desk copies, especially via social media. People in full-time, tenure-track jobs extol buying books for the classroom as opposed to requesting desk copies. I understand the drive, especially when it comes to supporting smaller, independent publishers. But I don’t see desk copies as a bad thing, especially when they’re actually used in a class.

This is not a Desk Copy

Aten
This is not a desk copy

I requested a desk copy of Naguib Mahfouz’s Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth. I bought my personal copy a lifetime ago. I read about Mahfouz in KMT, a journal about ancient Egypt geared towards a popular audience. KMT had published several articles on fiction about ancient Egypt. I was a historic preservation major at the time I read these articles. I was thinking seriously about becoming an Egyptologist. At that point in my life I rarely ever read fiction. Reading Akhenaten was a major departure for me and my reading. The copy I purchased and read in 2000 is still pristine in 2018. I read it again this summer in preparation for my class. I was transported back thousands of years, and I was transported back to my first reading. I read like I read it before. I didn’t mark it up. My copy of Akhenaten is not a desk copy.

Fences
This is not a desk copy

I requested a copy of August Wilson’s Fences. I bought my copy from a small-chain bookstore when I was in high school. Folks from the Mid-Atlantic or the Northeast might remember Encore Books. That is where I bought it. I went there one night with a “friend.” I bought several other books along with Fences. A play by Dylan Thomas stands out. I read Fences that spring. Later I saw a production of Fences at the Lehigh University’s Zoellner Arts Center. I still remember that production; the physical presences of the actors stands out in my mind, just like the image of James Earl Jones on my copy of Fences. I was a high school kid then; it is a lifetime away from where and what I am now. My copy of Fences is a physical manifestation of many complex feelings, ideas, explorations, moments, and experiences. My copy of Fences is not a desk copy.

Dead Book
This is not a desk copy

I also requested a desk copy of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, a new edition published by West Virginia University Press. I bought my copy of The Book of the Dead at the White Whale Bookstore in Pittsburgh where I attended an event celebrating the book’s recent release. I had a chance to meet with Derek Krissoff, the Director of West Virginia University Press. We talked about the release of the book, the importance of university presses, and the importance of public events like the one hosted by the White Whale Bookstore. The event also featured a reading by Catherine Venable Moore. Moore read from her excellent introductory essay that accompanies Rukeyser’s poem. My copy of The Book of the Dead is not a desk copy.

These Distinctions Matter in a Precarious World
All of my words on personal copies versus desk copies might seem like a strange distinction. It shouldn’t. I have another story to share. For most of the last year I spent my time grappling with an iPhone rocked with the dreaded touch disease. Using my phone to send emails to students, operate any of the Twitter accounts I’m associated with, or to do any form of work, was an opportunity for a devastating career disaster. Money was tight; I couldn’t afford a new phone. I came to realize that my employer wasn’t running out to get me a new phone so that I could do my work. Yes, my employer doesn’t pay for my desk copies, but the experience with my iPhone forced me to think about the other ways that we subsidize—in some form—the many facets of the work we do.

I refused to ask my past self to subsidize the work that I do, certainly not with the books from my personal library, especially ones from such very different parts of my life when this identity I have now wasn’t anywhere on the horizon.

Evocation/Avocation
The distinction of desk copies and personal copies of books is my way of navigating the evocation/avocation tensions of my work. Our love of teaching is supposed to be some kind of reward. I can’t eat the enjoyment of the work I do; I can’t pay the landlord with a good day in the classroom. I see myself as an employee the more time I spend in academia. If I worked in a restaurant kitchen I would never pay for the food that I’m preparing for patrons; I wouldn’t subsidize the owner of the restaurant. (Of course, many chefs bring their own knives to work– certainly an apt comparison here.)

I’m no longer using personal copies of my books. I’m not going to shame people for requesting desk copies. We can be respectful about how we request and use desk copies. Support quality publishers by promoting them, leave reviews of the books, and promote their books. No one will pay it forward for using books from my personal library; but I can pay it forward by promoting and assigning books from great publishers deserving of support.